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The Militia House


The Militia House

The horrors of war are familiar ground for writers. But in his gothic debut novel, THE MILITIA HOUSE, John Milas delivers a uniquely unsettling account of life in a combat zone, where the dull grind of day-to-day life as a cog in a bureaucratic war machine gradually morphs into something far more disturbing.

Corporal Loyette and the members of his unit have been deployed to a remote base in the Afghan desert that’s currently home to a group of British Royal Marines. They’re landing support specialists whose mission is to prepare FOB Z for the arrival of a U.S. Marine artillery battery. The job is nothing like people back home imagine. Loyette doesn’t spend his days battling an enemy. (Taliban soldiers make just one brief appearance in a garbled radio transmission.) Instead, he shuffles equipment around, checks spreadsheets and enters data in logbooks.

"THE MILITIA HOUSE wrestles with questions about the morality of war while also painting a bleak portrait of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing reality of life in a combat zone."

“Turns out the Marine Corps isn’t a great place to go if you want to escape bullsh*t,” Loyette --- who narrates this brief, claustrophobic novel in the first person --- thinks. Unfortunately, he only came to that realization after he quit college to enlist.

With little in the way of real action to occupy them, Loyette and his junior marines have plenty of time to dwell on other things. Their attention is soon fixed on the Militia House, a non-descript, crumbling barracks just outside the base’s fenced perimeter. Back in the ’80s, a group of stranded Soviet soldiers were cornered in the building, where they were slaughtered and skinned by the mujahideen. Or so the departing Brits say. It could just be a tall tale meant to scare the new guys, but Loyette and fellow soldiers Blount, Vargas and Johnson are bored and decide to go exploring, even though the Militia House is outside the wire.

“It’s not like we’re asking to go on a field trip to a hot zone. We just want to see some cool sh*t to make the other marines in LS platoon jealous the next time we share stories about what we’ve seen,” Loyette thinks. “We want some easy souvenirs.”

But what should be a quick jaunt to the Militia House soon turns weird. In a fly-filled room with charred black floors and walls pockmarked with bullet holes, Loyette feels “something…taking hold, pulling us in.” When they finally emerge, they’ve been inside for nearly an hour, though it feels like only minutes have passed.

Everyone tries to shrug off the strange experience. These aren’t guys accustomed to opening up about their feelings. But whatever presence they encountered in the Militia House seems to have followed them back to base. The strange moments pile up. Stick figures drawn on a wall seem to move. A black dog lurks around the edges of FOB Z. Is it real or a figment of Loyette’s mind? A notebook Loyette used to record his true feelings about his military experience is burned, then reappears. But everything about their time in Afghanistan is already so divorced from normal reality that it’s impossible to determine what’s really happening.

Milas is a veteran Marine who served in Afghanistan, and he’s mined that experience to craft his hallucinatory haunted house story. THE MILITIA HOUSE wrestles with questions about the morality of war while also painting a bleak portrait of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing reality of life in a combat zone. Loyette is no hero. “I’m not a compassionate person,” he says on the book’s first page. “I didn’t come here to help, not people and not dogs.” He’s a confused, frustrated young man who decided to join the military after his brother died in Iraq. But whatever solace he was seeking by signing up with the Marines has failed to materialize. The more time he spends in Afghanistan, the more his mind seems to crack apart. A second trip back to the Militia House is even more terrifying than the first.

Milas resists delivering an easy explanation for what’s happening to Loyette and his fellow soldiers. But by the time we get to the book’s final, anxiety-inducing pages, it’s clear that Loyette has been changed forever by his experience, and not for the better.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on July 22, 2023

The Militia House
by John Milas

  • Publication Date: July 11, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Gothic, Horror
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
  • ISBN-10: 1250857066
  • ISBN-13: 9781250857064