On January 1, 1980, Charles Monet, a Frenchman, lives by himself in Western Kenya near a huge volcano called Mount Elgon. A fifty-six-year-old amateur naturalist and the employee of a nearby sugar factory, Monet is promiscuous, and has many female “friends” in the area.
Preston writes about true events—if sometimes exaggeratedly, as he has admitted—but The Hot Zone is also in the horror or thriller genre. As in many books of this type, here Preston sets a seemingly normal scene, but with an ominous tone of what is to come.
Richard Preston, the author of the book, goes on a brief digression, relating how difficult it is to find details about the sources of dangerous viruses after the fact. Their effects, he asserts, are so horrific that researchers soon lose sight of the humans at their center.
Preston has made it clear that disaster will soon strike Charles Monet. We also start to see Preston’s writing style, in which he focuses on the human stories within these events, and jumps between personal details about his characters and wider musings on Nature and viruses.
Monet, it turns out, came to Kenya just as AIDS began to infect humans. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, AIDS spread along the Kinshasa Highway, a new road that spans much of the width of Africa. HIV, Preston explains, is a dangerous but not particularly infective Biosafety Level 2 agent, meaning that it cannot move easily from person to person. In fact, when researchers study live HIV, they don’t even need to wear protective spacesuit gear.
Preston will often compare HIV to Ebola. Although HIV is a lower Biosafety Level than Ebola (2 versus 4), it has actually killed millions more people. Preston’s early reference to the Kinshasa Highway brings up the theme of globalization—a human construction, designed to help economies and bring people together, but that also helped the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Moving back to Monet, Preston describes the man’s routine, in which he works during the week and explores nearby forests on the weekends. Monet is kind and gentle to animals, especially to monkeys, feeding and even holding them. At night, meanwhile, he generally stays in his house with his housekeeper Johnnie, who cleans and cooks for him. Monet also loves birds. He is friends with a crow, and around Christmastime he tries to care for a sick weaverbird, which dies in his hands. Preston speculates that perhaps the bird died of a Level 4 virus, but says that no one truly knows.
We continue to learn more about Monet, and his love for animals humanizes him and makes us feel sympathy for him. Even this seemingly benign trait, however, might in fact be dangerous, as Preston illustrates when he wonders whether the sick bird died of a Level 4 virus (thus implying that it perhaps infected Monet). Preston juxtaposes idyllic scenes with commentary on deadly viruses to ramp up the tension.
Describing Monet’s walk to work, Preston moves on to describe Mount Elgon, which looms above the surrounding landscape. He recounts how the mountain’s color changes as the light shifts throughout the day, making the mountain seem lovely and mysterious.
Mount Elgon seems like the pinnacle of natural beauty, but it also (as we will learn) houses a mysterious and horrific virus, proving Preston’s overarching point that nature may be gorgeous, but it can also be deadly.
Monet has women “friends” in a nearby, impoverished town called Eldoret, and he pays them for sexual intercourse. For Christmas vacation, he invites one of his friends to go camping on Mount Elgon with him, but (Preston tells us) no one can now remember her name.
The fact that no one can remember the woman’s name is a crucial point. Considering that many infectious diseases spread through sexual contact, the “friend” could be infected as well—and her anonymity would make her more dangerous as a possible source of an epidemic.
Monet and his friend drive to a cliff called Endebess Bluff on the side of Mount Elgon. Preston observes that the volcanic dust there is as red as blood. He adds that Mount Elgon is a secluded spot, filled with villagers at its base but with few tourists. The jungle surrounds an old English inn that has now fallen into disrepair. Between Uganda and Kenya, and close to Sudan, Mount Elgon is a rainforest surrounded by plains. Having formed seven to ten million years ago, it is the widest mountain in Africa. Several tribal groups live near the volcano, including the Elgon Massa, who plant crops and raise cattle at its base. Every year, Preston warns, humans move farther up the mountain, cutting down trees and endangering animals such as elephants—thus “strangling the wild habitat.”
Preston takes this opportunity to expand upon the opposition of humans versus nature, a dichotomy that sits at the heart of the book. Although Mount Elgon is a natural landmark, millions of years old, humans are destroying it with their everyday activities. Preston makes clear that he disapproves of this kind of destruction of the natural world, but, as is the case here, he doesn’t seem to believe that much can be done about it.
After entering the small segment of Mount Elgon that is a national park, Monet and his friend meet a monkey, which sits on his shoulder and eats a banana. They camp near a stream that is “milky with volcanic dust” and surrounded by Cape buffalo. Above them looms the Elgon forest, huge, menacing, and full of wildlife. Preston lists the kinds of life forms and plants that the forest contains, and finishes by describing a past when “[t]housands of elephants lived on the mountain.”
Preston continues his focus on nature, using his description of the Elgon forest to emphasize its power and vastness. He ends, however, on quite a different note, with his comment that there used to be thousands of elephants on the mountain. This implies that they have since been killed off by humans—a different kind of “epidemic.”
A thunderstorm moves in during the afternoon, and Monet and his friend stay in their tent (with Preston speculating that perhaps they have sex). Afterwards, on New Year’s Eve, they build a fire, cook, and “perhaps” drink champagne.
As he often does throughout the narrative, Preston takes care to humanize his characters, even if this means inventing details and speculating about events.
The next morning, Monet and his friend set off for Kitum Cave, driving as far as they can and then following elephant trails (while staying away from dangerous Cape buffalo). Preston takes the opportunity to describe the cave, which is filled with animals, including elephants, who go there at night to eat minerals and salts. In fact, the cave is so huge that it can hold up to seventy elephants at a time.
Kitum Cave is an important symbol within the book, and so Preston wants the reader to be able to picture it. Vast, ancient, and once filled with the largest creatures on Earth, the cave is clearly an awe-inspiring sight, an emblem of nature’s power and mystery.
Monet and his friend explore the cave, which is enormous (over fifty-five yards across). Surrounded by elephant dung and bat guano, the two see hundreds of bats flying all around them. As they walk farther, they see that Kitum Cave houses a petrified rain forest, which was buried by ash during Mount Elgon’s formation. Around the petrified logs are crystals “sharp as hypodermic needles.”
This detailed description of the cave’s contents emphasizes how enormous it is, and how foreign it is from the majority of readers’ experiences. Preston also uses the imagery of sickness (hypodermic needles) in describing natural beauty—suggesting how these two things can be related.
As Monet and his friend explore, Preston speculates about where their vacation went wrong—perhaps Monet pricked his finger on a crystal. He continues describing the cave, which has bones of ancient hippos, crocodiles, and elephants sticking out of its walls, and is filled with insects. Further in the cave is a crevice filled with the mummified corpses of baby elephants who have slipped and fallen. Even further back is a pillar that supports the roof, already damaged by elephants’ tusks. If they continue to damage the pillar, the roof of Kitum Cave will collapse. Finally, at the back of the cave, a huge number of bats hang on another pillar. Maybe, Preston wonders, Monet touched the guano.
Although Monet and his friend find great wonder within Kitum Cave, they also find great danger, but their curiosity wins out. Somewhere during their exploration, the two come across something infectious and deadly. By asking rhetorical questions about what that something was, Preston illustrates the uncertainty that surrounds this kind of event, and the special kind of fear and suspense that rises from this uncertainty.
Preston reveals that Monet’s friend resurfaced years after this incident. While working as a prostitute in a bar in Mombasa, Kenya, she meets a doctor who happens to have investigated the Charles Monet case. After talking to the doctor, however, she once again vanishes. By now, she has most likely died of AIDS.
Although Monet’s friend escapes the illness that will eventually claim him, she has most likely died of a different virus. The world, Preston implies, is a dangerous place, full of seemingly inescapable dangers.
After his vacation Charles Monet returns to his job, but within him “a life form had acquired Charles Monet as a host, and it was replicating.” On January 8, 1980, Monet develops a terrible headache and stays home from work. A temporary housekeeper tries to care for him (Johnnie is on vacation), but he only worsens. Three days later, he becomes feverish and starts vomiting. Meanwhile, his face becomes slack and dead, and he seems totally devoid of energy. His eyeballs become bright red, while his facial skin turns yellow with red spots. Confused though not delirious, Monet becomes “sullen, resentful, and angry.”
Just as he describes nature in great detail, so too does Preston take care to vividly recount the physical symptoms of the diseases about which he writes. This is the first time of many that readers will hear these symptoms described. Monet is powerless to fight the virus that has mysteriously invaded him, using him as a “host.” Preston emphasizes the horror of the virus, using language that suggests it is a malevolent, unstoppable force.
After several days Monet’s colleagues check on him, and drive him to a hospital in a city called Kisumu. The doctors at the hospital, stumped, give him an injection of antibiotics, but decide that he should go to Nairobi Hospital. Since he is still mobile, they put him in a taxi and send him to board a Kenya Airways plane. “A hot virus from the rain forest,” Preston warns, “lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth,” because of an interconnected web of airline routes.
More explicitly than before, Preston here makes plain how much globalization has helped viruses to spread around the world. Although a virus in Kenya may seem far away and foreign to American readers, it is actually incredibly easy for an infected man like Monet to board a plane, and for others on the plane to then spread the virus around the world.
As Monet’s plane, full of passengers, flies towards Nairobi, Preston describes the landscape beneath it. They pass plantations and villages, and Preston reminds readers that Africa is “the place where the human species was born.”
Once again, Preston takes care to describe the nature around Monet even as he becomes deathly ill. In this book, the natural world is as much a character as humans are.
On the small, cramped plane, Monet becomes sick. He vomits continually, and his lips become smeared with bile and blood. His eyes are bright red, while the red spots on his face have melded to form a giant bruise. The connective tissue under his skin, meanwhile, is dissolving, making his face look as if it is falling off his bones. Although his stomach is empty, Monet is vomiting black vomit, which consists mostly of blood—a perfect vehicle for a highly infectious virus. The vomit bag begins to overflow, so Monet closes it and hands it to a flight attendant.
Preston’s description is a mixture of scientific fact and suspenseful rhetoric, as he uses biological facts and vivid language to explain the horrifying process that is going on within Monet’s body. Of course, the description of Monet’s symptoms is all second- or third-hand for Preston, so he uses his “poetic license” to play up the more gruesome aspects.
Preston explains that the virus has now saturated Monet’s body in a process called “extreme amplification.” Monet is essentially transforming into a mixture of liquefying flesh and vomit. Beneath the surface, Monet’s blood is clotting, as if his whole body were having a stroke. He cannot feel any pain, however, because the clots have cut off blood flow to his brain. “Depersonalization” begins, a process in which infected people begin to lose their personalities as their brains die. Monet then gets a nosebleed, and though flight attendants give him paper towels, he is unable to stop the blood. Monet finds it difficult to interact with those around him, and he is hostile and monosyllabic—another symptom of the virus.
This description is meant to emphasize our human helplessness as “hosts” of some viruses. There is something especially horrifying about a microscopic entity that can attack even our personalities (through our brains), something most people might think of as unshakeable. By constantly referring to the other people on the plane, Preston also makes clear how easily any or all of them could be infected (and then potentially spread their infection to others).
Monet falls asleep, and Preston again describes the landscape, from the afternoon sun on the valley to the national park filled with zebras and elephants. The plane lands in the airport, and the bloody, dripping Monet gets into a taxi. Preston calls him a “human virus bomb,” and describes the “heavy, dull, and bloated” feeling Monet has in his stomach. The taxi drives through Nairobi, a crowded city brimming with men, women, and children, and finally stops at Nairobi Hospital.
Preston contrasts the beauty of the natural landscape with the horror of the disease (also a product of nature) that is ravaging Monet’s body. His trip through Nairobi, meanwhile, emphasizes how fragile modern urban life is, and how easily it could be destroyed by a hot virus like Ebola.
After entering the hospital, Monet sits in the waiting room, where he is surrounded by other people, many of whom are bleeding. As Monet waits, he “crashes,” meaning that he begins to hemorrhage. Blood comes gushing from all of his orifices, and he expels his intestinal lining as well. As blood pools around him, other people move away and a doctor is summoned. The virus, Preston relates, has “destroyed its host” and is attempting to find another.
Blood, always a powerful symbol within the narrative, takes center stage during this scene, as Monet’s bodily fluids begin to spread all over a waiting room filled with people who are completely vulnerable to his illness. Preston’s anthropomorphization of the virus gives the episode an added feeling of menace.