The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story is based on a non-fiction article by Richard Preston that was published in The New Yorker on October 26, 1992. Titled “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” the article chronicled an outbreak of a mutated strain of the Ebola virus that appeared in Reston, Virginia in the winter of 1989. A SWAT team of scientists and soldiers from Fort Detrick’s Army research facility were tasked with a secret operation to contain the potentially lethal virus before it could spread to the human population.
Preston divides The Hot Zone into four parts, beginning with “The Shadow of Mount Elgon,” which describes the history of filoviruses, including the first recorded cases of outbreaks of both the Ebola virus and the Marburg virus. In “The Monkey House” and “Smashdown,” Preston details the discovery of the Reston virus in Virginia and the subsequent actions by the Centers for Disease Control and the United States Army. Finally, in “Kitum Cave,” Preston describes his visit to a cave in Africa that is suspected of containing the natural host of the Marburg virus.
Preston undertook extensive investigation and research in order to expand his original article into a full-length book. He explains his process of research on his personal website, writing: “When I’m researching a book, I immerse myself in the lives of my subjects. I try to experience their worlds from within. I take extensive notes in small notebooks that I carry in my pocket. I use a digital camera, too. I am a compulsive fact-checker, calling people on the telephone, re-interviewing them, checking what I’ve written, doing my best to confirm verifiable details. (I once spent hours with Colonel Nancy Jaax at her kitchen table, inspecting her hands carefully so that I could describe her hands. At the same time, I was asking Colonel Jaax things like 'What was going through your mind at the moment you discovered you had Ebola blood running around inside your space suit?’)”
After its publication, The Hot Zone became a New York Time’s #1 nonfiction bestseller and was praised for its chilling descriptions of filoviruses and their effects. While some critics accused Preston of dramatizing events at the expense of scientific realism, no one could deny his skill in playing upon the fears of his readers through a real-life scientific horror story.
Since 1994, The Hot Zone has sold more than 2.5 million copies and has been translated into more than thirty languages. The book also inspired the 1995 movie “Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman, Renee Russo, and Morgan Freeman.