The primary meaning of the gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction. The titillation of sex denied, it offers its readers a vicarious participation in a flirtation with death—approach and retreat, approach and retreat, the fatal orgasm eternally mounting and eternally checked. More than that, however, the gothic is the product of an implicit aesthetic that replaces the classic concept of nothing-in-excess with the revolutionary doctrine that nothing succeeds like excess. Aristotle’s guides for achieving the tragic without falling into “the abominable” are stood on their heads, “the abominable” itself being made the touchstone of effective art. Dedicated to producing nausea, to transcending the limits of taste and endurance, the gothic novelist is driven to seek more and more atrocious crimes to satisfy the hunger for “too-much” on which he trades.
It is not enough that his protagonist commit rape; he must commit it upon his mother or sister; and if he himself is a cleric, pledged to celibacy, his victim a nun, dedicated to God, all the better! Similarly, if he commits murder, it must be his father who is his victim; and the crime must take place in darkness, among the decaying bodies of his ancestors, on hallowed ground. It is as if such romancers were pursuing some ideal of absolute atrocity which they cannot quite flog their reluctant imaginations into conceiving…
Some would say, indeed, that the whole tradition of the gothic is a pathological symptom rather than a proper literary movement, a reversion to the childish game of scaring oneself in the dark, or a plunge into sadist fantasy, masturbatory horror. For Wordsworth, for instance, heir of the genteel sentimentality of the eighteenth century, gothic sensationalism seemed merely a response (compounding the ill to which it responded) to the decay of sensibility in an industrialized and brutalized world—in which men had grown so callous that only shock treatments of increasing intensity could move them to react.
From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.