Now Reading
The Terror of Not Knowing in “The Militia House” 

The Terror of Not Knowing in “The Militia House” 

  • Our review of John Milas's new novel, "The Militia House."

In a recent interview with fellow author Lindsay Hunter, John Milas insists that terror is more specific than horror. Horror, he argues, is a reaction to something,, whereas terror relies on the the anticipation of something yet to happen, something unspecified. Terror relies on the intimacy of imagination. It’s a highly personal experience, one that offers enormous potential for transformation.

As Marine Corporal Alex Loyette narrates John Milas’s new novel l The Militia House with all the sophomoric self-doubt and fear of a Conrad protagonist, he also lacks the ambition to complete the quest with flying colors. Loyette and his Marines spend their deployment attaching cargo to helicopters and waiting for other Marines to show up and fire artillery at targets none of them can see. Loyette is a new NCO, still young, still trying to figure out what it means to lead others through the boredom and uncertainty of their deployment together. Of all the horrors described throughout The Militia House though, apathy emerges as the greatest threat to its characters.

The novel is bookended by the appearance of a dog. Upon introduction, the animal is suffering from porcupine quills lodged in its face. Throughout the story, the dog’s appearance taunts Loyette to discover more about himself. In a last glimpse, the dog provides a rare source of comfort within the chaotic world of the militia house. The cliché serves as a kind of mirror held up to Loyette’s attitude toward the war and himself. As Loyette and his animated subordinate Blount dread the impending boredom that accompanies their fire watch duties, he thinks, “I didn’t come to this country to worry about dogs, though. I didn’t come to this country to shoot dogs either, but I definitely didn’t come here to worry about them.” Just as the two dread the boredom, Loyette dreads the idea of wasting time thinking about the past that led him here even though by his own admission, “all we have is time to waste.”

The boredom is eventually what pushes Loyette and his team to pursue their own clandestine mission to investigate an abandoned Soviet-era barracks with a darkly violent history. Their British counterparts dub the site “the militia house” and warn the team to stay away, but Loyette insists on going to take pictures of “some cool shit to make the other Marines in LS platoon jealous the next time we share stories about what we’ve seen.” As tends to be the case, no argument can dispel the curiosity of adventure-seeking young men. Loyette and his men are no different, charmed by the possibility of experiences desired by many but known only to the chosen few. Likewise, as with so many bildungsromans about naive young men at war, the real enemy lies within.

Loyette and his men make a series of trips to the militia house, learning surprisingly little about its true story and what is most certainly myth despite recurring dog sitings, porcupine quills, malfunctioning cameras, and wall drawings that appear to move on their own. Each Marine is affected in their own deeply personal ways until a Marine named Vargas disappears. The disappearance forces Loyette to make a choice. Should he report Vargas missing to their boss, an absent lieutenant who takes for granted that Loyette will keep his men out of trouble, or keep quiet and hope Vargas turns up again? It’s a dilemma that every young leader dreads—a test of character that’s just as terrifying in this haunted house novel as it is in actual war zones.

By craftily avoiding any possibility of a firefight, Milas allows plenty of room to ruminate on the futility of a life seemingly wasted during a war while someone else does the fighting. Outwardly, the Marines avoid any serious emotional conversations by sticking to canned phrases like “good to go” and “it is what it is” along with an entire language of Marine Corps subculture that even I needed a glossary to understand despite my own deployment to Afghanistan with the army. The details of the forward operating base the Marines call home are clear, even when the principles governing time and space through the portal of the militia house are not. Jumps between the harsh realism of the Marine outpost and hallucinations within the militia house are beyond disorienting, at times working against greater questions about the extent to which Loyette’s past choices define his future potential.

Marketing the book as Tim O’Brien meets Stephen King implies a dichotomy between war writing and horror writing. But writing about war has always had more in common with horror than perhaps any other genre. Milas credits other military veteran authors like Phil Klay, Nico Walker, and Matt Young as influences, but also Jeff Vandermeer and Shirley Jackson whose likeness appears throughout The Militia House (haunted houses, disappearing search parties, fluid rules of time and space). 

And while the parallels between entering a forbidden haunted house and entering a misunderstood war are clear, Loyette’s own feelings about both choices aren’t nearly as cogent by the end. Rather, it’s the essence of terror that Milas is able to conjure that puts this story up there with some of the truest war stories ever told.


See Also

The Militia House

by John Milas

Henry Holt and Co.

Published on July 11, 2023

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

© 2021 All Rights Reserved.