He was born in 1898 near Fresno California. His father was farmer. The family sold its orchard in 1905 and moved to San Jose. Later, his parents would separate, and he would stay with his mother, only meeting his father later in life. It may be—not to dabble too much in psychohistory (psychobabble)--that the absence of a father figure made Price obsessed with his own manliness. At any rate, his later memoirs--The Book of the Dead, Trooper of the 15th Horse, the introduction to his collection Far Lands, Other Days, and short columns for fan publications in the 1970s—certainly perseverate on what it takes to be a man.
“In Sunday school, we had been warned not only against worshipping graven images, but also, against such menaces as the Witch of Endor, and, [sic] the Chaldeans who served the Sun and Moon and stars, and Hosts of Heaven. Fortune tellers and ‘spiritualists’ were included in the ban. I had always been partial to graven images, serving the Sun and Moon and Stars, as an astrologer, of course, and strange women, and wine that is red.
In his writings, though, he suggests that there was something more fateful about his life. In 1903, for example, when he was five, he snuck a drink of alcohol, which he liked; Upon catching him, his mother cried, “You’re going to be a wine-biber and a whoremonger like your Grandfather.” Nine years later, he met a Gypsy in San Jose who told his fortune: he would have many women, much work, and little money.
During his time in San Jose, Price worked at several odd jobs—as a delivery boy, in a theater—and indulged his interest in science fiction and engineering. For a time, he attended San Jose Normal School, though he did not like it. Around this time, he decided that he would be a pulp writer rather than a more literary one, which meant, he thought, he needed a knowledge of the world, as well as competence with swords, horses, and guns. In 1917—at the age of 19, and while the world was at war—he joined the 15th Cavalry. That took him to the Philippines, to Mexico, and to France, as part of the AEF (in which Kenneth MacNichol had also been involved). His friend and fellow science fiction writer Jack Williamson called him a “genuine soldier of fortune.”
His time in the service allowed him to indulge and develop his interests. Whorehouses became a “home away from home.” He became interested in Turkish rugs, Arabic culture, and what he called Asiatic philosophy and religion, eventually becoming a Buddhist (like George Haas). He also found a taste for exotic food and drink. One could say that he was marking himself out of the mainstream—he was also a Theosophist—but, really, it’s probably more fair to say, with Williamson, he just “enjoyed being different.” After all, he also considered himself a conservative Republican. Done with his time in the 15th Cavalry, he went to West Point, graduating in 1923.
Fresh from school, he took a job with Union Carbide in Newark as an engineer. At night, he wrote, selling some of his early work to Droll Stories and—that for which he is probably best known--Weird Tales. “Being a regular contributor to Weird Tales was a way of living, a life style,” he said later. “So, of course, was being a full-dress pulp writer in the ‘regular’ or ‘real’ magazines of those days, but with the WT clique, it was more so.” During the 1920s, Price was transferred to New Orleans. He continued to write, as well as continuing to sate his need for travel: Price obtained a car and started driving all around the country, meeting writers he admired and others in the fictioneering fraternity.
He was fired from Union Carbide in 1932 and decided at this point that he would be a full time fictioneer. Price approached this as a professional, not an artist. He honed his craft studying how-to books by Walter Pitkin and John Gallishaw. He kept abreast of the markets and learned to write what would sell—what editors wanted. Price moved to California in 1934—no doubt in part because that was home, but also because, like Robert Barbour Johnson, he knew it was a good place for writers. In California, he deepened his interest in Chinese culture. Already in San Jose, he had played the Chinese lottery. Now he explored San Francisco’s Chinatown, earning, he said later—proudly—his own sobriquet, Tao Fa. Price settled in San Mateo and Redwood City, a southern extension of the Bay Area bohemia.
As time went on, he played with characterization and a sense of place—and started to find better places for his work. He moved from Weird Tales to some of the “Spicy” pulps, and then on to Argosy and its competitors (although never Blue Book). All told, he sold about five hundred stories, only about ten percent of which was science fiction or fantasy. The bulk of the rest was adventure. Much of his writing had Asian settings. Williamson remembered:
“The Orient still possessed a mystique in those receding times, an aura of enchantment lost forever now, since too many tourists and newsfolk and service people have seen its gritty underside.
While writing, Price compared his annual earning to the Industrial Average: as long as he made three to five times that average, he felt justified in continuing as an author—he aimed for more than $1,000 per month. His best year was 1946. Price noticed that the pulp market was dying and bailed in 1952, becoming a microfilm technician for San Mateo county (for which he earned a pension), as well as freelancing with a private microfilm country and doing wedding photographs. He returned briefly to writing in the 1970s, turning out a few novels and some short stories. He died at his typewrite in 1988.
Price’s flirtation with Forteanism came around 1940—probably before the publication of the omnibus edition of Fort’s work, in fact. He was friendly with Robert Spencer Carr, a science fiction and fantasy writer who had been part of the Weird Tales fraternity but moved on to television. He wrote in The Book of the Dead:
“A dozen years had failed to subdue his passion for groups and causes and movements to achieve real or imaginary enlightenments. His missionary spirit now concentrated on Charles Fort, and Tiffany Thayer’s recently organized Fortean Society, an outfit dedicated to dissent, the rejection of demonstrably false concepts and acceptances. I quickly learned, after sending in my dues, and reading several issues of Doubt, the Society’s official organ, that the organization was more dogmatic than those it assailed, and consisted of minds more regimented than those it sought to liberate. Finally, not even scientists and astronomers were as ignorant of basic principles as were some Fortean liberators. Conceding all this, Bob strung along with Forteanism, on the principal that despite their compounded sillinesses, they might at times achieve some good.”
Given this chronology, however, it seems unlikely that Price ever formally joined the Bay Area Forteans, since he had become disinterested several years before the group was founded. Still, given his love of talk and being with other writers, it is not impossible that he stopped by occasionally. Whether he joined or not, though, he had something in common with at least some of the members, like Robert Barbour Johnson: Thayer’s version of Forteanism was not weird enough.