Some readers might be familiar with the term that heads this post but for those who aren’t, a ripping yarn is a colloquial way of referring to an exciting story or thrilling tale. It is seldom heard these days in conversation and is almost never used to describe works of nonfiction. It comes with a certain nuance of unbelievability, and indeed many of the stories to which it can be correctly applied contain elements of the fantastical.
Usually filled with danger and set in either real or imagined exotic locales, these stories often involve investigating mysteries or embarking upon a quest of some sort. Although some modern novels can certainly be placed under the shade of the term’s lexical umbrella, it is more commonly bestowed upon older examples of escapist adventure writing, including those that belong to the lost world literary genre.
Below we take a brief look at two lesser-known ripping yarns involving lost cities or hidden worlds. For several further examples, as well as a list of other adventure stories, take a look at our adventure literature page.
The People of the Mist (1894)
Although contestable, it is generally accepted that H. Rider Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines was the first of the lost world literary genre. It is certainly his most famous work and one of the best adventure stories ever published. It is however, only one of a huge number of fictional tales that the author wrote over the course of forty or so years. Some of these, such as She, have stood the test of time and are still relatively well known today, but others appear to have fallen into the abyss of obscurity wrought by the passing of time. The People of the Mist may be regarded as one of the latter.
The book version of The People of the Mist was first published in 1894 after the story had originally been serialised in a weekly magazine. It takes the form of a quest narrative involving the search for riches and redemption after the Outram brothers find themselves dispossessed of their family fortune through no fault of their own. Upon swearing an oath to restore their honour the siblings travel to Africa on the hunt for gold, but the real adventure only begins after the story fast-forwards seven years.
Bereft of luck and in an even worse predicament than when he set out, the younger brother (Leonard), and his African companion (Otter) come across a strange old woman, who promises to lead them to the mysterious City of the People of the Mist and its fabulous treasure of red stones—if they help her with the task of freeing a young woman from slavers. What follows is an adventure for the ages involving heroic deeds and plenty of romance as the group journeys through swamps, forests, and mountains. When they arrive at their destination, they have to contend with murderous priests, human sacrifice, a giant crocodile, and betrayal.
The wonderfully descriptive prose in Rider Haggard’s novels always seem to flow so well and The People of the Mist is no exception. It includes a good deal of action, which when combined with the excellent pacing results in a very suspenseful and exciting finale. Unfortunately, Rider Haggard’s writing is somewhat sullied by the colonial attitudes and racist overtones inherent to much of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century’s lost world genre, which is definitely something that should be pointed out to any prospective readers before they pick it up.
The Devil’s Guard (1926)
Although not as well known as H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy was an equally prolific writer, penning a staggering amount of adventure fiction during his literary career. In contrast to most other adventure novelists of his time he had a distinctly anti-colonial stance, and when compared to the works of his contemporaries, his books contain a notable lack of racism and gender prejudice. Mundy had a profound interest in Theosophy and ancient wisdom, and he was able to weave his beliefs into the fabric of his stories to create some ripping yarns that combined exciting escapades with spirituality. One example of this is his 1926 novel, The Devil’s Guard.
Set in the Himalaya of northern India and Tibet, the story begins with a mystery. While contemplating their future in the foothills of Darjeeling, two friends (Jimgrim and Ramsden) hear of the disappearance of an acquaintance (Rait) who had covertly entered Tibet—then closed to foreigners—to gain access to the hidden kingdom of Shambhala and its secret knowledge. With an interest in Shambhala themselves, the two friends resolve to rescue Rait and after making a detour to Delhi, set out over the high mountain passes of Tibet with their companions Chullunder Ghose and Narayan Singh.
The group’s journey is packed with peril and intrigue as they become embroiled in a larger narrative concerning the struggle between two groups of mystics that represent the opposing forces of good and evil. As they make progress, it becomes clear that their quest symbolizes a test of character and morality as much as it does a physical challenge. Mundy was brilliant at creating deep, likeable, larger-than-life characters and this is particularly the case in The Devil’s Guard. Together with short but profound self-made quotes that introduce each chapter, he uses the contrasting personalities and dispositions of the four main protagonists to highlight the traits that constitute his ideal of personal and spiritual development.
With its esoteric storyline, atmospheric journey over precipitous Himalayan trails, and one or two stirring action sequences, The Devil’s Guard can be read solely as a lost world adventure novel in the vein of so many others. However, upon taking some time to penetrate its outer visage in consideration of its deeper implications, one may reveal a work of literature by a man who hoped to offer a more meaningful message to the world.
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