“I hold my M16 steady with one hand and use the other to swat flies away. This is our first night on duty in Kajaki.”
The Militia House is the debut horror novel from John Milas, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. Milas brings his personal experience to The Militia House, which gives the first-person account of newly promoted Corporal Loyette, whose unit is assigned to a base in Kajaki, Afghanistan, in the same year as the author’s own deployment.
Loyette and his crew are replacing British soldiers who tell the Americans eerie stories of a nearby abandoned barracks. This so-called Militia House was the site of a massacre of Soviet soldiers at the end of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1989.
The daily life of the soldiers is quite monotonous, and curiosity gets the best of Loyette and his unit as they explore the Militia House. They soon find strange unaccountable writings and become plagued by nightmares.
John Milas’s writing is well-honed, particularly for a debut novel. The author’s real-life experiences as a marine in Afghanistan enable him to give a realistic depiction of a soldier’s life on duty. Loyette’s narration flows smoothly, aside from the occasional use of military jargon and an odd obsession with Nicki Minaj that seems an awkward fit for the rest of the novel.
The first half of The Militia House is rather slow paced, reflecting the dullness of a typical soldier’s life during deployment. But the unsettling nature of The Militia House gradually builds throughout the novel, leading up to a perfectly executed climax that kept me flipping the pages till the very end.
Milas is especially adept at describing the emotional tolls of deployment in a war zone, even for soldiers who have not seen direct combat. The onset of post-traumatic stress disorder can be subtle, often manifesting in unconscious ways. Milas also explores the impact on military families, both during their loved ones’ deployment in dangerous locales so far from home and in the aftermath of their service.
Corporal Loyette has been deeply affected by the loss of his older brother, who died during his own military service and is viewed by everyone as a hero. Many of Loyette’s decisions are driven by him questioning his own self-worth considering his brother’s sacrifice.
One peculiarity of The Militia House is that the Afghan people play essentially no role in the story. It would have been interesting to consider how the interactions between the occupying soldiers and local people could have influenced the plot.
Overall, The Militia House is a highly accomplished debut horror rooted in reality. The horror elements gradually creep up on the reader, reflecting both the terror of experiencing an active war zone and the psychological tolls experienced by soldiers in the aftermath of their deployment.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.