The Militia House
by John Milas
Henry Holt, 2023
Reviewed by Adam Straus
In the acknowledgements of his debut novel The Militia House, John Milas thanks his “chorus of influences.” The names include Shirley Jackson, Henry James, Anne Rivers Siddons, Max Uriarte, Phil Klay, and Tim O’Brien. I would wager this is the first time those artists have appeared together, and I would wager with confidence, because The Militia House is singular: A paranormal horror story set in northern Helmand Province circa 2010. It’s The Haunting of Hill House flavored by the sardonic Terminal Lance webcomic. It’s The Turn of the Screw in the beautifully straightforward prose of Redeployment. It’s The House Next Door narrated by Paul Berlin. It will make you laugh and it will give you nightmares. It’s challenging Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue for the title of “Best American Novel of the Afghan War,” and it might be winning.
The Militia House has a lively premise. Corporal Alex Loyette leads a small team operating a landing zone at an outpost near Kajaki Dam. It’s supposed to be a temporary assignment, just long enough to help an incoming artillery unit get all their gear. But when Loyette and his Marines visit the militia house (an old Soviet barracks near the LZ) weird things start happening. The men experience strange dreams, moving graffiti, a deluge of porcupine quills, and a minor time warp. And that’s just Part I.
Despite the supernatural elements driving much of the plot, the book is startlingly realist, especially in its depiction of the casual ridiculousness that categorizes deployed life in the Marine Corps. The book’s main human antagonist is a haircut-obsessed careerist, and almost everyone’s from Texas. Loyette has to fill out a command climate survey that asks him, among other questions, to rate whether “Members of my unit who consume alcohol do so responsibly” (there is no alcohol on their remote base) and “Leaders/supervisors are actively engaged during off-duty hours” (“How would I know anyway?” Loyette wonders). Anyone who’s served can attest that menial administrative requirements wait for no one, and no war.
At the bottom of his survey, Loyette writes “I’m filling this out in the dark and there’s a firefight going on a couple miles away and this is totally pointless. Have a great day!” Beyond that firefight, the only enemy intrusions are remembered rocket attacks. Defeating the Taliban, much less helping the Afghan populace, has nothing to do with daily life in-country. Work, when it’s done, is of the busy and/or self-interested varieties. The artillery unit shoots their howitzers, yes, but their targets are never mentioned. “I am not a compassionate person,” Loyette tells us in the book’s opening paragraph. “I didn’t come here to help.” The Militia House isn’t allegorical horror, but if the reader steps back and squints, it’s easy to see what it’s telling us about our war in Afghanistan.
Loyette’s not sure whether he’s even fighting that war. In his unnamed Midwestern hometown, an emotional civilian thanks him “for everything.” Loyette wonders “Would they thank me if they knew that all I did was fuck around with cargo at the LZ? … All I do is boring shit. I’m just a poge. They wouldn’t be impressed if they knew what that was.”
It’s “Person Other than Grunt,” a Marine Corps pejorative for people who work in jobs that support the infantry, rather than in the infantry itself. But despite this self-deprecation, there’s an endearing earnestness to Loyette. He takes his duties more seriously than he might admit, leading his Marines in physical training, saving one of them from electrocuting himself during an airlift, striving to live up to his dead brother’s legacy. Loyette feels the simple weight of his job as a non-commissioned officer on deployment: “When you’re responsible for someone here, you have to make sure they don’t die.” And he responds with something like love for his Marines. After delivering a piece of bad news to his three charges, he watches them “spend the rest of the afternoon batting big hornets out of the air… Then they make holes in the dirt and pour in hand sanitizer before lighting the hornets on fire. Their response is far from healthy, but at least they’re dealing with it together.”
This may seem like a contradiction, but it’s a productive one. The incoherence of the wartime experience is often framed as an issue of understanding: The veterans know some truth, and the civilians can’t process it. This book flips that approach on its head, heightening the actual incoherence of deployment to the point where the reader and narrator are every bit as confused as the civilians back home as to what, actually, is going on. The competing thrusts of realism and horror keep us off-balance, wondering where one stops and the other begins. As a result, the alienation is complete, even within the Marine Corps. “It doesn’t sound like any of that really happened, Corporal,” an officer tells Loyette after he recounts the events of the novel’s climactic scene. “I’ll be honest. I don’t believe you.”
Truth-telling and writing are central to this narrator. Before the events of the book, Loyette was censured by his command for writing a too-honest blog (this was not an uncommon experience for Americans serving in the War on Terror; one such blog even became Matt Gallagher’s searing memoir Kaboom!). After visiting the militia house, a mysterious notebook fills itself with everything from missives aimed at General McChrystal to a truly haunting repeated incantation that appears in multiple languages throughout the book. At the end, Loyette turns to writing again. Without spoiling anything, The Militia House’s final chapter is epistolary. And it comes after a twist so shocking (and so well-earned) that I audibly gasped when I read it.
The Militia House starts strong and ends stronger, propelled by short chapters that average around five pages each. This fragmented form perfectly matches Loyette’s fragmented experience of war and the ways in which he comes undone. It makes for a horrifying, unsettling book. Like its namesake, all you have to do is step inside.