The Fictioneer: Praise for E. Hoffmann Price
The Arbo Files
Edgar Hoffmann Price (1898-1988) christened himself a “fictioneer,” almost as if his pen, which inked countless pages of short stories and novels over his long career, was wielded like a rapier. There is hyperbole here, but not much. The pulpster Price had a fascinating life outside of the written page full of blood and guts and esoteric adventure.
Born in Fowler, California to a farming family, young Price’s first memories may have been of his father’s apple orchard. Sadly, not long after a move to San Jose, the Price family separated, with little Edgar going to live with his mother. (Price would not see his father again until adulthood.) At age seven, Price decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life as a writer. His Sunday school courses, along with his interests in yoga and astrology, set him down a path of dark fantasy that would not end until he did.
Price picked up pulp writing at the same time as he worked odd jobs around San Jose. At age nineteen, Price joined the 15th Cavalry just in time to hunt Pancho Villa across border in Mexico. As a soldier, Price would see service not only in Mexico, but also in American-controlled Philippines and in France during World War I. The life of a professional soldier was not so bad for Price, as he got to indulge his old loves of wine and women at the French bordellos near the rear lines. Price also found time to explore more intellectual passions like Orientalism and the study of Turkish and Arabic culture. Price discovered an interest in Buddhism, later becoming an adherent of the faith. To round out his weirdness, the whore-mongering wino and self-styled Theosophist was politically a Republican, and a conservative one at that.
Price left the 15th Cavalry in order to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1923. For some reason, it seems that Price did not stick around in uniform after graduating. By the late 1920s, Price worked for Union Carbide as an engineer, first in Newark and then New Orleans. At night, Price churned out sensationalist pulp stories for Weird Tales. Price also wrote for Argosy, Terror Tales, Speed Detective, and Spicy Mystery Stories (the latter publication specialized in softcore pornography). As a pulp writer, Price’s aim was to make at least $1,000 per month, which put him well above average earnings. Price’s secret to prolific writing was nicotine, as he apparently smoked two cigarettes per page. At this rate, Price could write one 9,000-word story per day.
Price’s work in Weird Tales trafficked mostly in the exotic. His stories borrowed heavily from “yellow menace” themes, although they typically involved Western Asia more than the Far East. Price’s work is full of lusty sultans, beautiful harems, and gallant rogues fending off Ottoman corsairs. He also did much to court controversy. One of his Weird Tales stories, “The Stranger from Kurdistan” (1925) received accusations of blasphemy for its inclusion of a conversation between Jesus Christ and Satan. Another Weird Tales story, “The Infidel’s Daughter” (1927), angered the magazine’s Southern readers for its depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. (Another pulp magazine, Black Mask, actually did an entire issue dedicated to the KKK, with writers penning pro- and anti-Klan stories.) In good pulp fashion, Price had his own serial character, too. Price’s Pierre d’Artois appeared in Weird Tales alongside Jules de Grandin, a fact that pretty much sunk Price in the long run. You see, d’Artois is a shallow copy of de Grandin, the most popular Weird Tales character. Like Seabury Quinn’s creation, d’Artois is a French occult detective who often battled devil cults and assorted monsters across the world. Despite being derivative, the Pierre d’Artois stories were popular with readers.
Price lost his day job in 1932. Rather than look for new work, Price decided to become a full-time writer. In 1934, he returned to California and immersed himself in the writing community there. From 1934 until 1952, Price grinded away in the pulps. At the same time he explored new interests like Chinese food and culture (Price became a fixture of San Francisco’s Chinatown) and Forteanism. Named after Charles Fort, Forteanism is a way of exploring inexplicable matters such as ghosts, extraterrestrial life, and generally bizarre occurrences. This would be Price’s life until the pulp market went belly-up in the 1950s. Seeing the writing on the wall, Price went back on the job market, eventually landing a position as a microfilm technician for San Mateo County. Price more or less ceased writing in the 1960s. He returned in the late 1970s and 1980s with a series of fantasy novels set in China. He is said to have died at his typewriter in 1988.
Price is best remembered today for his friendship with H.P. Lovecraft. The friendship began when Price wrote to Lovecraft and praised his short story, “The Silver Key.” Price was so taken with the tale that he proposed a sequel starring Randolph Carter. Price wrote a 6,000-word draft in the late summer of 1932. By April 1933, Lovecraft sent back to Price a 14,000-word draft that kept many of Price’s ideas but almost none of his words. The story, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” appeared in the July 1934 issue of Weird Tales. The story was attributed to both authors, and Price’s original draft would later see print in 1982.
The friendship would see the pair visit each other between 1932 and 1933. Lovecraft visited Price in New Orleans in June 1932, while Price returned the favor and met Lovecraft in Providence in the summer of 1933. One story says that Price took Lovecraft to a Big Easy bordello, where a couple of the working gals proved to be fans of Lovecraft’s work. This story is almost certainly false, but another yarn seems real. This one says that Price and another friend arrived at Lovecraft’s home in Providence with a six-pack of beer. Lovecraft looked at the bottles and said, “And what are you going to do with so much of it?” For the abstaining Lovecraft, six bottles of beer did seem like too much.
Few stories better capture the big spirit of Price — an adventurer, a lover of life and the finer things, and a good friend who visited many of his pulp contemporaries. Price may be best known today as an associate of Lovecraft, the titan of weird fiction, but he was a staple of Weird Tales during the golden years. Price produced excellent pulp that had its own flair and character. Much like Robert E. Howard, Price mixed the weird with the wild and adventurous. The former “soldier of fortune” did two-fisted tales well, and his exotic Eastern yarns are some of the best from a pulp world filled to the brim with Oriental gems. Price’s work can easily be found online today, and it is out there in the ethernet, just waiting for you to pick it up for the first time.